August 16, 2017
1 min read

Higher purpose in life impacts physical functioning in older adults

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Having a higher sense of purpose in life was associated with decreased risk for weakening grip strength and slower walking speed among older adults, according to recent findings.

“Recent research finds that having a higher sense of purpose in life is associated with greater likelihood of engaging in healthier behaviors (eg, higher physical activity, use of preventive health screening), better biological functioning (eg, reduced allostatic load), reduced risk of disease (eg, lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cognitive impairment), and mortality,” Eric S. Kim, PhD, of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and colleagues wrote. “Because purpose appears to promote healthier behaviors and protect against disease, investigators speculate that it contributes to people’s capacity to maintain independent physical function. However, we know of no studies directly evaluating whether purpose is associated with objective performance-related measures.”

To assess associations between high purpose in life and physical function in adequately functioning older adults, researchers analyzed longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study of U.S. adults aged 50 years and older. Data were collected in 2006 and 2010.

At baseline, 4,486 participants had grip scores that indicated adequate functioning and 1,461 had walking scores that indicated adequate functioning.

When controlling for sociodemographic factors, each 1-standard deviation increase in life purpose was associated with a 13% lower risk for weak grip strength and a 14% lower risk for slow walking speed.

Associations with walking speed remained in all covariate models, with a risk ratio of 0.89 (95% CI, 0.83-0.95) in the fully adjusted model.

Conversely, associations with grip strength did not reach statistical significance after adjusting for relevant baseline health factors, depressive symptoms and health behaviors.

“Leading a life of purpose not only feels good and meaningful, existentially speaking, it may also be an area of rich potential in which intervention studies and public health education programs might contribute to improved health of our ever-growing aged population,” Carol D. Ryff, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote in an accompanying editorial. – by Amanda Oldt

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.